A tribute to the music teacher
Most of us have had kind and generous teachers that left a lasting impression.
Kneisel Hall - the reason I couldn’t visit Newburyport this summer - is a pre-professional chamber music festival in Blue Hill, Maine, founded in 1902. Around fifty college-aged instrumentalists gather for seven weeks in the woods, performing for a public audience. There are several differences that set student programs apart from festivals like NCMF. Students receive coachings, for example - we’re assigned a teacher to guide us through each piece for a few weeks before the concert. There’s also less freedom for the students in terms of choice; we’re generally assigned who to work with and what to play (although we can make specific requests). Because of this, experiences at places like Kneisel tend to be somewhat of a mixed-bag, as it is unlikely one will “click” perfectly with the assigned members. However, there is much to learn from dealing with less-than-ideal musical settings!
I struck gold with my last assignment this summer: the transcendent Schumann Piano Quartet with a phenomenal group of students (all Juilliard grads), coaching with pianist Robert McDonald. Schumann is a unique musical figure: we know a lot about his inner life, and adequately capturing his bipolar, psychotic tendencies with a quartet thrown together over a few weeks is a tall order. The emotional content of Schumann’s music switches in the blink of an eye, and rehearsing it can feel almost like practicing a feeling of whiplash. His music is dense, full of opportunity.
Take, for example, the opening of the first movement. One indication of truly sublime art is when something expands the more it is studied. The more we worked on the first twelve bars of this piece, the more we began to see just how much could be done with the music; how many different flavors this one chord could have, the number of diverse emotions this other beat could inhabit, and how breathing in a slightly different way could change the entire trajectory of the phrase. This kind of work can be overwhelming but also astounding, and lends itself to real reflection and growth.
The slow movement is one of the most famous of Schumann’s writings. One could spend years studying the main theme (16 bars of music). It took my quartet over a week to settle on a tempo for the movement, which we finally arrived at after hours of singing through the phrases, listening to recordings, arguing but “staying calm,” and consulting with colleagues. Hans Christian Andersen said: “Where words fail, music speaks.” This movement is a perfect example of how art surpasses human speech.
Schumann wrote this during his most prolific year of composing, where he churned out much of his chamber music. Although struggling with mental illness throughout his lifetime - bouts of depression, bipolar disorder, hearing voices, hallucinating - he had not yet taken a turn for the worse until his attempted suicide and hospitalization toward the last five years of his life (Schumann died institutionalized). There is more light in this piano quartet than there is in some of his later works; order, structure, and gentle human emotions can still be detected. There is a sense of hope, both young and old, in this quartet. Yes, there is darkness, pain, tragedy, and loss, but one ends the journey of this piece feeling uplifted and hopeful. It is a perfect way to bring in the new year of 2022!
Eliana Razzino Yang.
On Tuesday, I had the privilege to discuss the composer Arnold Schoenberg with his son, Larry.